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Video games dominate Britain’s entertainment industry, yet we lack the critical vocabulary to unders

Cultural realities tend to lag behind economic ones. How else to explain that the UK’s biggest (worth £4.5bn-plus in annual sales) and fastest-growing (at close to 20 per cent annually) entertainment medium still barely registers on the nation’s more rarefied intellectual radar? I am talking, of course, about video games – as the field of interactive entertainment still rather quaintly tends to be known. And the reason for its neglect is not so much snobbery as a gaping absence in our critical vocabulary and sensibilities.

When, today, we ask a question such as “Is it art?” we are no longer looking for a yes or no answer. The 20th century decided that urinals, cans of soup, recorded silence, heaps of bricks and fake human excrement could all be art, of a certain kind. Under these circumstances, it would be more than a little perverse to deny the idea of art to objects as lovingly crafted, as considered and as creative as video games. The question that’s really at stake is something more specific. If video games are art, what kind of art are they? What are their particular attributes and potential? And, perhaps most importantly, just how good are they?

I recently posed similar questions to someone who is very definitely both an artist and a gamer: the writer Naomi Alderman. Alderman’s first novel, Disobedience, appeared in 2006 and won her the Orange Award for New Writers. In parallel to her work as a literary writer, however, she also spent three years pursuing a very different kind of career: that of lead writer on the experimental “alternate reality” game Perplex City. To many authors, such a venture might have felt like a period of time away from “real” writing. Yet, Alderman explained, for her it was more a discovery that these two modes of writing were not only compatible, but symbiotic. I asked her whether she had preferred working on her novel or on the game. “I couldn’t choose,” she said. “I feel that if I were to give up either the novel or the game, I wouldn’t be able to do the other.”

It’s a creative interconnection Alderman traces back to her childhood. “My first memory of playing a game was around 1981, when my mum took me to the Puffin Club exhibition, a kind of roadshow for kids who read books published by Puffin. I remember they had a bank of computers at this one where you could queue up to get ten minutes playing a text-based adventure game. And I thought, ‘This is absolutely brilliant.’ I was fascinated.” These games were some of the first things it was possible to play on a computer in which plot and character meant more than a handful of pixels dashing across the screen. For Alderman, as for many others, the experience was closely associated “with stories and with the idea of being able to walk into a story”. And the dizzying kind of thought experiment that the best fiction can undertake – its gleeful defiance of the rules of time and nature – lies close to the heart of what video games do best.

As a modern example, Alderman describes a game called Katamari. In it, for want of a better description, you roll stuff up. You control, she tells me, “a little ball, which is effectively sticky, and you’re rolling it around a landscape picking stuff up. As you do so, your ball gets bigger and bigger. It’s almost impossible to explain how much fun this is, the pleasure of growing your little ball, which starts off just big enough to pick up pins and sweets from a tabletop and ends up picking envelopes, then televisions, then tables, then houses, then streets; until in the end you can roll it across the whole world picking up clouds and continents.”

Katamari may sound like an oddity, but its pleasures are typical of a central kind of video-game experience, in that they are in part architectural: something one inhabits and encounters incrementally; a space designed to be occupied and experienced rather than viewed simply as a whole. Players in a well-made game will relish not just its appearance but also the feel of exploring and gradually mastering its unreal space. Yet, in what sense is any of this art, or even artistic? Just as every word within a novel has to be written, of course, every single element of any video game has to be crafted from scratch. To talk about the “art” element of games is, I would argue, to talk about the point at which this fantastically intricate undertaking achieves a particular concentration, complexity and resonance.

It’s worth remembering, too, just how young a medium video games are. Commercial games have existed for barely 30 years; the analogy with film, now almost 120 years old, is an illuminating one. In December 1895, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, showed the first films of real-life images to a paying audience, in Paris. This, clearly, was a medium, but not yet an art form; and for its first decade, film remained largely a novelty, a technology that astounded viewers with images such as trains rushing into a station, sending early audiences running out of cinemas in terror. It took several decades for film to master its own, unique artistic language: cinematography. It took time, too, for audiences to expect more from it than raw wonder or exhilaration. Yet today you would be hard-pushed to find a single person who does not admire at least one film as a work of art.

If, however, you ask about video games, the chances are that you’ll find plenty of people who don’t play them at all, let alone consider them of any artistic interest. This is hardly surprising: at first glance it can seem that many games remain, in artistic terms, at the level of cinema’s train entering a station – occasions for technological shock and awe, rather than for the more densely refined emotions of art.

Yet the nature of games as a creative medium has changed profoundly in recent years – as I discovered when I spoke to Justin Villiers, an award-winning screenwriter and film-maker who since late 2007 has been plying his trade in the realm of video games. Even a few years ago, he explained, his career move would have been artistically unthinkable. “In the old days, the games industry fed on itself. You’d have designers who were brought up on video games writing games themselves, so they were entirely self-referential; all the characters sounded like refugees from weak Star Trek episodes or Lord of the Rings out-takes. But now there is new blood in the industry – people with backgrounds in cinema and theatre and comic books and television. In the area in which I work, writing and direction, games are just starting to offer genuine catharsis, or to bring about epiphanies; they’re becoming more than simple tools to sublimate our desires or our fight for survival.”

I suggest the film analogy, and wonder what stage of cinema games now correspond to. “It reminds me of the late 1960s and early 1970s, because there were no rules, or, as soon as there were some, someone would come along and break them. Kubrick needed a lens for 2001: a Space Odyssey that didn’t exist, so, together with the director of photography, he invented one.” How does this translate to the world of games? “It’s like that in the industry right now. Around a table you have the creative director, lead animator, game designer, sound designer and me, and we’re all trying to work out how to create a moment in a game or a sequence that has never been done before, ever.”

Villiers is, he admits, an unlikely evangelist: someone who was initially deeply sceptical of games’ claims as art. But it would be wrong, he concedes, simply to assume that the current explosion of talent within the gaming industry will allow it to overtake film or television as a storytelling medium. Today’s best games may be as good as some films in their scripts, performances, art direction and suchlike. But most are still much worse; and in any case, the most cinematic games are already splitting off into a hybrid subgenre that lies outside the mainstream of gaming. If we are to understand the future of games, as both a medium and an art form, we must look to what is unique about them. And that is their interactivity.

To explore this further, I spoke to a game designer who is responsible for some of the most visionary titles to appear in recent years – Jenova Chen. Chen is co-founder of the California-based games studio thatgamecompany, a young firm whose mission, as he explains it, is breathtakingly simple: to produce games that are “beneficial and relevant to adult life; that can touch you as books, films and music can”.

Chen’s latest game, Flower, is the partial fulfilment of these ambitions, a work whose genesis in many ways seems closer to that of a poem or painting than an interactive entertainment. “I grew up in Shanghai,” he explains. “A huge city, one of the world’s biggest and most polluted. Then I came to America and one day I was driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco and I saw endless fields of green grass, and rows and rows of windmill farms. And I was shocked, because up until then I had never seen a scene like this. So I started to think: wouldn’t it be nice for people living in a city to turn a games console into a portal, leading into these endless green fields?”

From this grew a game that is both incredibly simple and utterly compelling. You control a petal from a single flower, and must move it around a shimmering landscape of fields and a gradually approaching city by directing a wind to blow it along, gathering other petals from other flowers as you go. Touch a button on the control pad to make the wind blow harder; let go to soften it; gently shift the controller in the air to change directions. You can, as I did on my first play, simply trace eddies in the air, or gust between tens of thousands of blades of grass. Or you can press further into the world of the game and begin to learn how the landscape of both city and fields is altered by your touch, springing into light and life as you pass.

“We want the player to feel like they are healing,” Chen tells me, “that they are creating life and energy and spreading light and love.” If this sounds hopelessly naive, it is important to remember that the sophistication of a game experience depends not so much on its conceptual complexity as on the intricacy of its execution. In Flower, immense effort has gone into making something that appears simple and beautiful, but that is minutely reactive and adaptable. Here, the sensation of “flow” – of immersion in the task of illumination and exploration – connects to some of those fundamental emotions that are the basis of all enduring art: its ability to enthral and transport its audience, to stir in them a heightened sense of time and place.

Still, an important question remains. What can’t games do? On the one hand, work such as Chen’s points to a huge potential audience for whole new genres of game. On the other hand, there are certain limitations inherent in the very fabric of an interactive medium, perhaps the most important of which is also the most basic: its lack of inevitability. As the tech-savvy critic and author Steven Poole has argued, “great stories depend for their effect on irreversibility – and this is because life, too, is irreversible. The pity and terror that Aristotle says we feel as spectators to a tragedy are clearly dependent on our apprehension of circumstances that cannot be undone.” Games have only a limited, and often incidental, ability to convey such feelings.

Thus, the greatest pleasure of games is immersion: you move, explore and learn, sometimes in the company of thousands of other players. There is nothing inherently mindless about such an interaction; but nor should there be any question of games replacing books or films. Instead – just as the printed word, recorded music and moving images have already done – this interactive art will continue to develop along with its audience. It will, I believe, become one of the central ways in which we seek to understand (and distract, and delight) ourselves in the 21st century. And, for the coming generations – for which the world before video games will seem as remote a past as one without cinema does to us – the best gift we can bequeath is a muscular and discerning critical engagement.

Tom Chatfield is the arts and books editor of Prospect magazine. His book on the culture of video games, “Gameland”, is forthcoming from Virgin Books (£18.99)

VIDEO GAMES: THE CANON

Pong (1972). The first true video game. Bounce a square white blob between two white bats. A software revolution.

Pac-Man (1980). A little yellow ball, in a maze, eating dots, being chased by ghosts. The beauty of interactive complexity arising from something simple and slightly crazy – and still fiendishly fun today.

Tetris (1989). This utterly abstract puzzle of falling blocks and vanishing lines was launched on the Nintendo Game Boy and single-handedly guaranteed the hand-held console’s triumph as a global phenomenon. Perhaps the purest logical play experience ever created.

Civilization (1991). View the world from the top down and guide a civilisation from hunter-gathering to landing on the moon. Hours, days and months of utterly absorbing micromanagement.

Doom (1993). Run around a scary maze wielding a selection of big guns being chased by aliens. Then chase your friends. Doom did it first and created a genre. For the first time, a computer had made grown men tremble.

Ultima Online (1997). Enter a living, breathing online world with thousands of other players; become a tradesman, buy your own house, chat, make and betray new friends. The first multiplayer online role-playing game is still, for many, the purest and greatest of them all.

The Sims (2000). Simulated daily activities for virtual people; help them and watch them live. For those who think games are all violent and mindless, note that this began the best-selling series of games in history – more than 100 million copies sold, and counting.

Bejeweled (2001). A simple, pretty puzzle game that changed the games industry simply because it could be downloaded in minutes by any computer attached to the internet. Digital distribution is the future, and this title first proved it.

Guitar Hero (2005). Live out your dreams of rock deification with friends gathered round to watch you pummel a plastic guitar. A revolution in cross-media: cool, sociable fun, and a licence to print money for its creators.

Wii Sports (2006). Wave your arms around while holding a white controller. Now anyone could play tennis and go bowling with family and friends in the living room. Nintendo delivered another revolution in gaming with this debut title for its Wii console.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

Andre Carrilho
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Putin's revenge

Twenty-five years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia is consumed by an insatiable desire for recognition as the equal of the USA.

President Trump meets President Putin. It’s the most eagerly awaited encounter in world politics. Will The Donald thaw the New Cold War? Or will he be trumped by “Vlad” – selling out the West, not to mention Ukraine and Syria?

The Donald v Vlad face-off comes at a sensitive moment for the Kremlin, 25 years after the demise of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991 and just before the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Were the heady hopes at the end of the Cold War about a new world order mere illusions? Was Mikhail Gorbachev an aberration? Or is Putin rowing against the tide of post-Cold War history? How did we end up in the mess we’re in today?

These are some of the questions that should be explored in Trump’s briefing book. He needs to get to grips with not only Putin, but also Russia.

 

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Today President George H W Bush’s slogan “new world order” sounds utopian; even more so the pundit Francis Fukuyama’s catchphrase “the end of history”. But we need to remember just how remarkable that moment in world affairs was. The big issues of the Cold War had been negotiated peacefully between international leaders. First, the reduction of superpower nuclear arsenals, agreed in the Washington treaty of 1987: this defused Cold War tensions and the fears of a possible third world war. Then the 1989 revolutions across eastern Europe, which had to be managed especially when national boundaries were at stake. Here the German case was acutely sensitive because the Iron Curtain had split the nation into two rival states. By the time Germany unified in October 1990, the map of Europe had been fundamentally redrawn.

All this was accomplished in a spirit of co-operation – very different from other big shifts in European history such as 1815, 1871, 1918 and 1945, when great change had come about through great wars. Amid such excitement, it wasn’t surprising that people spoke of a new dawn. This was exemplified by the unprecedented working partnership between the US and the USSR during the First Gulf War in the winter of 1990-91 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush and Gorbachev agreed that they shared a set of “democratic” and “universal” values, rooted in international law and in co-operation within the United Nations.

The new order of course assumed the continued existence of the Soviet Union. Despite the USSR’s growing economic and political problems, no one anticipated its free fall in the second half of 1991. First came the August coup, an attempt by a group of anti-Gorbachev communist hardliners to take control of the Union. Their failed putsch fatally undermined Gorbachev’s authority as Soviet leader and built up Boris Yeltsin as the democratic president of a Russian republic that was now bankrolling the USSR. Then followed the independence declarations of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and crucially Ukraine, which precipitated the complete unravelling of the Union. And so, on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev became history, and with him the whole Soviet era. It seemed like the final curtain on a drama that had opened in Petrograd in 1917. A grandiose project of forced modernisation and empire-building pursued at huge human and economic cost had imploded. The satellites in eastern Europe had gone their own way and so had the rimlands of historic Russia, from central Asia through Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. What remained was a rump state, the Russian Federation.

Despite all the rhetoric about a new world order, no new structures were created for Europe itself. Instead, over the next 15 years, the old Western institutions from the Cold War (the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union) were enlarged to embrace eastern Europe. By 2004, with the inclusion of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Nato and the EU reached the borders of Russia, less than 100 miles from St Petersburg.

Initially the West’s eastward expansion wasn’t a big problem. The Kremlin did not feel threatened by the EU because that was seen as a political-economic project. Nato had been repackaged in 1990 as a more political organisation. Indeed, four years later, Russia joined the alliance’s “Partnership for Peace”. And in 1997, when Nato announced its first enlargement to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Russia was invited to join the alliance’s new Permanent Joint Council. That same year, Russia became a member of the G8. In short, during the 1990s the consensual atmosphere of 1989-91 seemed to be maintained.

But Yeltsin failed to create a new Russia from the ruins of Soviet communism. Between 1989 and 1992, as the command economy disintegrated, inflation soared and national income fell by one-third – a crash as spectacular as those America and Germany had suffered in the early 1930s. The largest and fastest privatisation that the world had seen created a cohort of super-rich oligarchs. Crime and corruption became rampant, while millions of Russians were condemned to penury. “Everything was in a terrible, unbelievable mess,” Yeltsin’s adviser Yegor Gaidar later admitted. “It was like travelling in a jet and you go into the cockpit and you discover that there’s no one at the controls.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of political parties resulted in chaos. Yeltsin managed to hang on, thanks to increasingly autocratic rule. In October 1993, after several months of wrangling over the balance of power between executive and legislature, he used army tanks to shell the parliament building in Moscow and imposed a new constitution built around a strong presidency. This and a succession of contrived referendums kept him in power for the rest of the decade. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1999, an ill and exhausted Yeltsin orchestrated his own departure. Declaring that he would hand over to “a new generation” that “can do more and do it better” at the start of a new millennium, he said that he was conveying his powers to an acting president.

His designated successor was an apparently unassuming little man called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

***

Who was Putin? Where had he come from? Most immediately he had been prime minister since August 1999 – the sixth man to serve as Yeltsin’s premier. Yet he had made his career as a discreet outsider, often underestimated by those around him. In fact, he was a long-serving KGB officer: he joined in 1975, at the age of 23, entering a culture that would define his persona and outlook.

Crucially, the Gorbachev era was almost a closed book to Putin: he never experienced the intoxicating passions of reform politics within the USSR – perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya – because he spent 1985 to 1990 as a case officer in Dresden in East Germany. To him, Gorbachev’s reforms signified destruction: an empire discarded and a country ruined. During the 1990s, as Putin rose through the ranks of the city administration of his home town St Petersburg and was then moved to Moscow, he witnessed the disastrous effects of chaotic privatisation, the erosion of Russia as a great power and the collapse of the national economy.

Out of the traumatic 1990s came Putin’s passion for a strong state. He spelled this out in a 5,000-word document entitled Russia on the Threshold of the New Millennium, published on the Soviet government website on 29 December 1999. In it, he stated bluntly that the Bolshevik experiment had totally failed. “Communism and the power of the Soviets did not make Russia into a prosperous country,” he wrote. It had been “a road to a blind alley which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation”.

Putin welcomed recent “positive changes”, especially the Russian people’s embrace of “supranational universal values” such as freedom of expression and travel, as well as “fundamental human rights and political liberties”. But he also highlighted traditional “Russian values”, especially patriotism – pride in “a nation capable of great achievements” – and “social solidarity”, which, he asserted, had “always prevailed over individualism”. He did not believe that Russia would become “a second edition of, say, the US or Britain, in which liberal values have deep historic traditions”. What he presented as “the new Russian idea” would be “an alloy or organic unification of universal general values with traditional Russian values which had stood the test of the times, including the test of the turbulent 20th century”.

Woven into Putin’s manifesto was a distinctive conception of his place in politics. He envisaged himself as a “statesman” in the Russian sense – meaning a builder and servant of the state, in a country where the state has always been seen as superior to society and the individual. He considered the true leader to be above mere electoral politics, occupying a more permanent position as the guardian of state interests. He looked back admiringly to the autocratic reformers of the late tsarist era – men such as Nicholas II’s prime minister Pyotr Stolypin – and had no time for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who had both been submerged by democracy and had undermined the state.

Above all, he believed that Russia had to resume its rightful historic place as a “great power”. He considered the vicissitudes of the 1990s an aberration that had to be overcome. Adapting one of Stolypin’s celebrated phrases, he liked to say that the people did not need “great upheavals”. They needed “a great Russia” – with a “strong state” as the “guarantor of order” and the “main driving force” of any durable change.

The “acting president” was elected in his own right in March 2000 and won re-election in 2004 for another four years. During the 2000s Putin concentrated on kick-starting the economy, bringing the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era under firm control and building monetary reserves, aided by rising prices for Russia’s oil and gas. This enabled the country to survive the financial crisis of 2008 and stood in marked contrast to a decade earlier, when the Asian crash of 1997-98 led Russia to default on its foreign debt and devalue the rouble. In rebuilding prosperity and pride, Putin earned the gratitude of millions of Russians, scarred by the poverty and humiliations of the Yeltsin era.

Showing himself off as a military strongman, he targeted Chechnya, which had claimed independence in 1991. Yeltsin had failed to tame the anarchic north Caucasus republic in the Chechen War of 1994-96; Putin imposed direct Russian rule brutally in the first year of his presidency, reducing the Chechen capital, Grozny, to rubble in 2000.

Increasingly secure at home, he began to reassert Russian power in the international arena. Initially, this did not involve confrontation with the West. He co-operated with the US in the post-9/11 “war on terror”, though he didn’t support the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, abstaining from the Bush-Blair mission of forceful regime change. In 2003-2004 he protested but ultimately accepted the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the accession of the Baltic states into Nato and the EU – even if the Kremlin regarded them as part of Russia’s “near abroad”. In 2007, however, Washington’s plans for a Nato missile defence “shield” in eastern Europe (deploying interceptor missiles and radar tracking systems), officially justified as protection against “rogue states” such as Iran, prompted Russia to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This was part of the fabric of co-operation woven in 1990-91. Nevertheless, foreign policy wasn’t Putin’s priority in his first stint as president.

***


In 2008, after two terms in office, Putin was obliged under the constitution to step down from the presidency. Under a notorious job swap, however, he was elected as prime minister to the new (nominal) president, Dmitry Medvedev, who within months pushed through a law extending the term for future presidents from four to six years. Then, in September 2011, Putin announced that he would run for the presidency again.

For millions of Russians, this second job swap seemed a cynical power play. Putin won the election of March 2012, naturally – the Kremlin machine ensured that. Yet he gained only 64 per cent of the vote despite having no serious opposition. Rural areas run by local clans tied to him were easily manipulated, but in many big cities, including Moscow, he polled less than 50 per cent.

The 2012 election campaign was the moment when Putin’s conception of the statesman-strongman collided with the democratic expectations of Russia’s perestroika generation, now coming of age. It marked a crunch point in the history of post-Soviet Russia – a clash between different models of the country and its future. Ranged against Putin were those whom the opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, of the liberal People’s Freedom Party, called the new “mass middle class”, formed over the previous two decades. Taking to the streets in protest against the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” were managers, engineers, journalists, lawyers, IT specialists and the like. For these people, Putin had passed his sell-by date. After his announcement that he wanted another term in the Kremlin, images circulated on the internet of an aged Putin dissolving into the geriatric visage of Leonid Brezhnev – whose near-two decades in office symbolised the “era of stagnation” that Mikhail Gorbachev had swept aside.

Social media was transforming urban Russia. Between 2008 and 2012 internet penetration among the over-16s doubled from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Russia had its own version of Facebook: VKontakte. The Kremlin’s alarm at the upsurge of virtual opposition and street protest was intensified by the Arab spring in 2011. Much international comment highlighted the role of a young “Facebook Generation” in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, fostering a “digital democracy” that toppled long-standing autocrats – supposedly financed and supported by Washington. Putin liked to claim that the protests in Russia had also been stirred up and/or funded by the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Little wonder that one of his priority projects after winning the 2012 election was refining a sophisticated system of internet surveillance known as Sorm, run from part of the old secret-police headquarters of Lenin’s Cheka and Stalin’s KGB in Lubyanka Square, Moscow. With that in mind, the oppositionist Ryzhkov declared that even though Russian society was now very mature and “European”, the regime was “still Chekist-Soviet”. This, he said, was the “main contradiction” in contemporary Russia.

The domestic protests and the Arab spring threatened Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s position in the world and consolidate its sphere of influence in the “near abroad”. He focused on a “Eurasian Union”, an idea first touted in the 1990s by some central Asian states, notably Kazakhstan, but picked up in earnest by Putin after 2011. Yet, for him, the crux of a viable Eurasian bloc lay in the west, not the east: in Ukraine, with 45 million people, a strong industrial base, and its critical geopolitical position. Putin didn’t just see Ukraine as Russia’s historic “borderland”. Celebrating Kievan Rus – the original east Slavic state of the 9th to 13th centuries – he insisted that Kyiv was “the mother of Russian cities”. Keeping Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence was a red-line issue for the Kremlin.

That line was crossed in February 2014. For a decade Ukraine – an ethnically fractured country (78 per cent Ukrainian; 17 per cent Russian) – had hovered between Russia and the West, depending on the latest change of leaders in this corruption-riddled state. In November 2013 the Russia-leaning Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, stalled Ukraine’s long-discussed “association” agreement with the European Union. Thousands of pro-EU protesters surged into Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

In the face of repressive police measures, the mass demonstrations continued for three months and spread across the country, including the Crimea, where Russians were the majority, bringing Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia on 21 February 2014. The next day Putin began a campaign of retaliation, culminating in the forcible annexation of the Crimea, rubber-stamped by a referendum in which (officially) 96.77 per cent of the Crimean electorate voted to join Russia.

For the West, Putin had finally overstepped the mark, because the Crimea had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Putin claimed that the Russian inhabitants of the region were invoking the right to “self-determination”, just like the Germans during unification in 1990, or the Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 when seceding from Yugoslavia. But in the West, Russia’s military intervention in an independent state was condemned as a flagrant breach of international law. The US and the EU imposed political and economic sanctions against Russia, precipitating a financial crisis and a collapse of the stock market. By the spring of 2016 the rouble had fallen 50 per cent in two years. This was coupled with a halving of the price of oil, on which Russia’s economy depends. The country slid into recession, reversing the economic success of the president’s first stint in power.

Yet the slump does not appear to have damaged his domestic popularity severely. The state-controlled media whipped up patriotic fervour: Russia v the West. And Putin – the “History Man”, as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy dub him in their book Mr Putin – has deliberately constructed his own version of the recent past to justify his actions. Playing on the trauma and humiliation of the Soviet break-up, he appealed to national pride, touching the emotions of millions of Russians.

Putin has presented his intervention in the Crimea (and subsequently eastern Ukraine) as an assertion of Russia’s right as “an independent, active participant in international affairs”. In a major policy statement on 18 March 2014, he harked back to the era of “bipolarity” as a source of “stability”, arguing that America’s arrogant attempts after 1991 to create a “unipolar” world, exacerbated by Nato’s progressive enlargement, had pushed his country into a corner.

It was not just that Kyiv’s turn towards the EU threatened to detach Ukraine from Russia and its “Eurasian” sphere; talk about actually joining Nato raised the spectre of the Western military alliance being “right in our backyard” and on “our historic territory”. Putin conjured up the prospect of Nato warships entering the Black Sea and docking in Sevastopol, that “city of Russia’s military glory” – a “real threat to the whole of southern Russia”. Enough was enough, he declared: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”

***

 

To Western eyes the story looked very different. The enlargement of the EU and Nato was driven less from Brussels and Washington than by the desire of eastern European countries to escape from the clutches of “the Bear”. Putin had tolerated the loss from Russia’s “near abroad” of Warsaw Pact states from Poland to Bulgaria, but the Baltic states (former Russian imperial territory) were a very different matter. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had won their independence from the tsarist empire after the First World War, only to be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Second World War. For the Balts, 1991 therefore represented the rebirth of freedom and statehood; they saw membership of the institutional West – the European Union and Nato – as an essential guarantee of national security.

Nato has become a “four-letter word” for Russia and one can argue that, ideally, the “new world order” should have been based on new institutions. But in 1989-90 the persistence of Nato was essential to allay European fears, not least in the USSR, about a unified Germany at the heart of the continent. There was no discussion at this moment about Nato’s further extension beyond Germany, let alone a firm pledge that it would not. Contrary to Putin’s assertions, an expansionary blueprint did not exist.

Whatever the arguments about ­history, however, relations between Russia and the West are deadlocked. So are we in a “New Cold War”, as touted by the Russian government since Dmitry Medvedev’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2016? In fundamental ways: no. Russia and America are not engaged in an all-encompassing global power struggle, military, political, economic, cultural, ideological. The new Russia is essentially capitalist and fully integrated into the world economy, with a multitude of trade and financial links with the West.

Despite bellicose rhetoric at the top, Russian and US diplomats talk and work together behind the scenes, not least in the recent selection of a new UN secretary general, António Guterres. Above all, the language of “unipolarity” and “bipolarity” no longer reflects the reality of international affairs: a “multipolarity” of world powers, a profusion of “non-state actors” capable of terrorism and warfare, and potent transnational forces, notably mass migration – all of which are deeply destabilising. This is very different from the Cold War.

Amid this new world disorder, today’s Russian-American stand-off revolves around differing approaches to international relations. Putin’s policy is rooted in traditions of great-power politics: the control of territory and the assertion of state sovereignty, especially within what Russia regards as its historic sphere. By contrast, the United States, albeit erratically, has promoted humanitarian interventionism, pursued regime change and indulged in the rhetoric of global democracy, especially since the 9/11 attacks.

So, why the divergence? One can say that the West has failed to pay consistent attention to Russia’s sensitivities about its post-Soviet decline. Nor has it given due recognition to the reality of Russia as a great Eurasian power. On the other side, Putin has increasingly pulled his country out of the network of co-operative political forums and agreements forged with the West in the aftermath of the Cold War. He has also challenged the independence of small states on Russia’s periphery. Today, abandoning any vestiges of entente with America, Putin seems to believe that Russia can regain its great-power status only by distancing itself from the West and by overtly challenging the US in hot spots around the world. This is very different from the world imagined by Bush and Gorbachev and pursued to some degree by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Putin is undoing what he sees as a “democratic” peace, made to Russia’s geopolitical disadvantage in 1989-91.

Take Syria: Putin knew that Barack Obama had no stomach for wholesale military intervention on such a fragmented battleground, where few direct US interests are at stake. As an appalling human tragedy has unfolded, especially in Aleppo, Putin has exploited his free hand by despatching Russia’s sole (Brezhnev-era) aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syrian waters and building a Russian airbase near the key port of Latakia. US passivity has allowed him to establish a novel, if tenuous, military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and thereby to strengthen his position in the Middle East as a whole.

On the Baltics, Washington drew a firm line last summer: Nato’s Warsaw summit in July 2016 committed Alliance troops and aircraft to each of these states by way of a token but unequivocal act of deterrence. Putin responded by further beefing up the Russian short-range nuclear arsenal in Kaliningrad. This tit-for-tat in the Baltic Sea area is likely to spiral.

In the standoff over Ukraine – where Russia has done nothing to end the fighting – the Americans have been content to let Angela Merkel take the lead in trying to broker a peace deal. While playing tough in the Baltic, she has kept open channels of communication with Putin over Ukraine. Significantly, the president has not spurned her offer to talk. The two can converse without interpreters, in German and in Russian; Merkel seems to be one of the few foreign leaders for whom Putin entertains a certain respect, if only because she recognises Russia’s need to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, all these various power plays reflect essentially conventional ways by which Putin seeks to unpick 1989-91. More significant is the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive avant-garde methods of combating the Western “bloc” of liberal democracies – by manipulating transnational financial and commercial ties, spinning the global media and steering policy discourse in target states. Russia can leverage its relative weakness if it cleverly exploits its post-Cold War immersion within the global capitalist system and Western popular culture as a kind of “Trojan Horse” .This is what Putin’s personal adviser Vladislav Surkov has termed “non-linear war”.

It is no secret that, in this vein, Moscow used cyber-power in an attempt to mould American opinion during the 2016 presidential election campaign. For all the media hype about hacked computer systems and leaked emails, the Kremlin’s information warfare is not that innovative. After all, the underlying concepts and most of the techniques were developed by the USSR (and equally by the United States) to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs during the Cold War. Let’s not forget that the young Mr Putin was schooled in KGB Dresden.

So, although we may not be back in the era of bipolarity, some of the new ways are also old ways. Under Putin, Russia seems to have resumed its historic quest for position against the West and its insatiable desire for recognition as America’s equal. Will it ever be possible to forge a stable “alloy” blending “universal” and “Russian” values? That would truly be a Russian revolution. l

Kristina Spohr (London School of Economics) and David Reynolds (Cambridge) are the co-editors of “Transcending the Cold War” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge